The Historical and Colonial Context of Brian Friel’s Translations

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The Historical and Colonial Context of Brian Friel’s Translations Regarded by many as Brian Friel’s theatrical masterpiece, Seamus Deane described Translations as “a sequence of events in history which are transformed by his writing into a parable of events in the present day” (Introduction 22). The play was first produced in Derry in 1980. It was the first production by Field Day, a cultural arts group founded by Friel and the actor Stephen Rea, and associated with Deane, Seamus Heaney and Tom Paulin. As Deane asserts, the play is in many respects an intelligent and enlightening metaphor for the situation in Northern Ireland. The aims of raising cultural awareness and dispelling socio-political apathy in the North were central to the objectives of the Field Day group. However, despite Friel’s concerns with contemporary Ireland, the play is also an enchanting fictive account of the Irish experience of British colonialism. My aim in this page is to firmly place Translations within its historical context, in order to understand the representation of colonialism in the play and to facilitate further post-colonial readings. Translations may be located both temporally and spatially to a fixed point in Irish history. The characters hail from Baile Beag, renamed with the anglicised title of Ballybeg. The action of the play occurs over a number of days towards the end of August 1833. Before delving into the play it is clear, from these most general of points, that the mise-en-scene of Translations is a period of great significance in the colonial relationship between Ireland and England. The lifetime of Hugh and Jimmy Jack, the sixty years or so running up to 1833, bore witness to many important events in the metamorphosis of Ireland from a rural Gaelic society to a modern colonial nation. To go back another seven decades, in 1704 penal laws were enacted “which decreed that a Catholic could not hold any office of state, nor stand for Parliament, vote, join the army or navy, practise at the bar land” (Kee Ireland: A History 54). Thus, by 1778 a mere five per cent of the land of Ireland was owned by Catholics. The Irish people (most notably Catholics, though Protestants also) such as those portrayed in Translations suffered severe discrimination, poverty and hardship. The French Revolution of 1789 jolted Irish political thinking into a new fr... ... middle of paper ... ... to speak English and every subject will be taught through English (396). Maire’s desire, at the opening of the play, to speak English shall soon be enforced by law throughout the National Schools in Ireland. Where Dan O’Connell and Maire both assumed the use of English would allow progress towards their respective national and personal dreams, Hugh believes that English was simply for “commerce” but that it “couldn’t really express us (the Irish)” (418). He realised that the use of Gaelic, of remaining true to their own traditions was a method of resisting colonialism, “our only method of replying to .... inevitabilities” (418). Perhaps the most ironic passage in the play appears during a conversation between Yolland and Hugh. Hugh indulges himself the smiling position of condescending to the young soldier, dismissing William Wordsworth (and by implication English Literature): Wordsworth?.... No I’m afraid we’re not familiar with your literature, Lieutenant. .... We tend to overlook your island (417). Poignantly, within a relatively short period of time the poetry of Wordsworth, and of the English canon, would be read and recited by the majority of children in Ireland.

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